Thursday, 22 June 2017

Searching Out Fear in the Gathering Gloom

As I mentioned in my playthrough of Darkmoon's Curse, the first of Ian Livingstone's Adventures of Goldhawk series of FF-lite gamebooks for younger readers, I acquired the second book in the series, The Demon Spider, in the same eBay lot as Curse, and was too underwhelmed by the first book to even bother having a go at Spider for a long while afterwards. Indeed, I only got round to giving it a shot when it came up as part of my playing through the whole Fighting Fantasy range, including spin-offs, at a now defunct online forum. Despite making a couple of sub-optimal decisions along the way, I managed to get to the climax, at which point my character was killed in the toughest fight in the book. My account of that attempt is the last such account to have been preserved by the quirks of the Wayback Machine, and can now be found part of the way down this post at the lost forum's successor.

If I had been luckier back when I played Curse here, I'd have defeated the Banshee, obtained the all-important Golden Hand wristlet, and gone on to confront the villainous Darkmoon, forcing him to transform himself into a mouse, and recovering the Karazanian King's crown. With the real Prince Goldhawk still in a poison-induced coma, court wizard Marris would have requested that I continue to play Dave and have myself temporarily crowned King. Which is more or less where Spider picks up...

I agree to continue my imposture (which is not a choice given to me - I guess the only way to decide not to continue impersonating the Prince is to not buy the book), and am crowned, following a bit of maybe-hilarious-if-you're-six slapstick from my annoying sidekick Orlando, the Dwarf turned Tin Pig. Celebrations ensue, and in the morning comes an unexpected dash of realism. Darkmoon's defeat has not caused the Orcish armies which were invading Karazan to give up and disband, and they're only a few days' fighting from reaching Karazan Castle.

The Orcs are faring so well against Karazan's army because of their allies: untiring, relentless animated Skeletons, and Dark Druids, who destroy morale with their daftly-named terror bubbles. Marris decides that Karazan's army will also need allies, and arranges to contact the Silver Elves, who should be able to destroy the terror bubbles with their magic arrows. To deal with the Skeletons, we will need the assistance of the Giant known as Stonehammer. Who, in a rather warped twist, is revealed to be Marris' son.

Marris confesses a tragic tale of appalling parental neglect. Up until the age of sixteen, his son was a normal boy, but Marris never quite got round to teaching him that going into a Wizard's laboratory and consuming the contents of random vessels is a ****ing idiotic thing to do. So guess what happened the moment Marris forgot to lock his laboratory door before dashing off to sort out one of Darkmoon's weirder pranks (making all the inhabitants of a village look 30 years older than they really were). Yep, the boy swigged down a cocktail of potions that brought about changes far more drastic than a conventional puberty, causing him to vastly increase in size while his skin turned rock hard. I wonder if these changes were gradual, or if Marris returned to find his home a heap of rubble, with a sullen, stone-skinned giant standing in the ruins and mumbling that 'a big boy did it and ran away'.

The youth renamed himself Stonehammer (no nominative determinism here, at least) and ran away to the mountains, where he has lived in seclusion, often being mistaken for part of the scenery, for the past decade. Marris cannot tell us exactly where on Sunstone Mountain his transformed progeny lives, but the Queen of Pain knows everything about the mountain, so we'll just have to ask her. Her home is the Dungeon of Despair, and naturally a respected public figure such as Marris doesn't know the exact location of her establishment and has never been one of her clients, despite those allegations in the tabloids a few years back... honestly, the photos don't even look that much like him...

Ahem! If we're able to find Stonehammer and persuade him to come and smash the Skeletons, we'll have to take him back again straight afterwards. Otherwise, he'll die because that's how the magic works. No, of course Marris isn't just trying to avoid an awkward reunion, or minimise the risk of Social Services hearing about the whole affair. It's the magic, being all... magical.

Anyway, while Marris seeks the assistance of the Elves, Orlando, Edge the irritable sword and I will have to go south and seek the Dungeon so we can find the Queen and learn the whereabouts of Stonehammer. And, this being an Ian Livingstone book, I will have to find a multitude of obscure items during my travels in order to avoid being killed in any of a dozen or so arbitrary and mildly gruesome ways.

I automatically start the adventure with a Skill of 8, an unspecified quantity of food and water, and just 10 Gold Pieces. My tiresome companions and I set off early in the morning, and have a not-as-charming-as-Ian-hoped conversation in which I request that Orlando and Edge not use any titles or terms of respect when addressing me, but just call me by the name of the comatose Prince I'm impersonating.

We head south for some hours, eventually reaching a log cabin. Outside it sits a two-headed man, arguing with himself about which head gets to eat the lizard he's just roasted. My metal associates squabble often enough that I'm not in the mood to listen to further disputes, so I suggest that the heads share the lizard, and they tell me to mind my own business. Suppressing the urge to retort, "Well, I am King!" I offer to share my food with them/him in return for information. This freakish double act doesn't know the way to the Dungeon of Despair, but will tell us how to find someone who does know in return for two chicken legs and two Gold Pieces, and I agree because I remember that I'll need the 'little present' that accompanies the advice.

The two heads devour the chicken legs simultaneously, spoiling their shared stomach's digestion, and start arguing about who gets to swallow food first. I remind them that they owe me information (and that I haven't yet handed over the money they want), and am told to go west at the next junction, seek out the belly racers, and ask for Fat Jack. The bicephalous lout also hands me a violin string, and I set off along the road again.

After half an hour we reach the junction that was mentioned, and I turn west as directed. The track leads to a village of cottages with wide doors, and in a field nearby is an event ripped off from homaging Judge Dredd, as half a dozen extremely obese individuals with wheels attached to their distended guts prepare for a sprinting (well, vaguely speedy waddling) contest. We stay well out of the way of the participants, and the winner is identified as Fat Jack, so I approach him after he's collected his prize.

When I ask the way to the Dungeon of Despair, Fat Jack states that nobody in their right mind would want to go there, but I must have my reasons, so he'll tell me. I need to go back east, then south across the Badlands until I reach the Valley of Skulls. At the end of the Valley is a large, heavy boulder which blocks the entrance to the Dungeon. The sort of thing I’d be liable to need a Giant’s assistance to shift. But I won’t be able to find the Giant unless I enter the Dungeon, so…

Fat Jack also warns me that the Valley is inhabited by Little People, who would kill me for a brass button, so I had better make sure I don’t have any brass buttons on me take along a crystal as a bribe. He then prepares for the next race, which we stick around to watch. A small boy wanders among the spectators, trying to sell books. This is the sort of bizarre encounter that usually leads to the acquisition of something important in Livingstone adventures, but I remember from my previous attempt at Spider that the book I’d buy is irrelevant and has a nonsensical title. What makes this all the stranger is that, later in the adventure, I’m going to have to ask for an essential item that has never been mentioned before. This book-buying sequence would be the perfect opportunity for a hint that encountering the Queen of Pain will be a lot more survivable if I have that artefact, but it’s just an irrelevant bit of padding. Unless, at some unspecified point in the future, Ian Livingstone writes his autobiography and gives it a cryptic title about fingers and moons, in which case this would be the most drawn-out and obscure in-joke ever.

We proceed to the Badlands, my companions bicker, and as I pause for a gulp from my flask, a Horned Shrieker emerges from the sand and charges at me. Edge is keen to fight, and a good roll of the dice gives me an instant victory. The pit in which the Horned Shrieker had concealed itself contains assorted items, and while the text forces me to take the rope, I get to choose which, if any, of the spear, the gold medallion and the copper ring I take. I don't remember any of those items turning out to be harmful, so I grab the lot.

Further south, a trail of smouldering footprints crosses the path, heading east. We follow them, Orlando expressing caution while Edge is still in a belligerent mood. After a while we get close enough to see that the footprints have been left by a Lava Beast, which has a sack that must be made of an impressively heat-resistant material. Orlando warns that Lava Beasts are vicious killers, and even Edge would have difficulties harming one, and then the Beast notices us and exhales steam in our direction. I am not scared off, but I heed Orlando's warning (even irritating sidekicks occasionally do something useful) and attack with something other than my sword. Unsurprisingly, that turns out to be the rest of my water (credit to Ian for the unobtrusive reminder that I was carrying it a short time before), which causes the lava to cool in a manner that proves fatal for the Beast of which it is composed. I make a sub-Schwarzenegger quip, and check the sack's contents, which turn out to be a Firestone, an iron key and a Gold Piece, all of which I pocket.

I could go south from here, but the text also offers the option of returning to the track and then heading south, and my knowledge of the author's idiosyncrasies leads me to suspect that doubling back is the better option. As I resume my journey, my mind is filled with images of undead armies, Darkmoon, and the Queen of Pain (in spite of the fact that my character has had no opportunity to learn what the latter looks like). Orlando interrupts my broodings to draw my attention to a half-buried skeleton that's pointing at a cave mouth. Also half-buried is a leather bag, which I don't touch because, as I recall, the venomous snake inside it is somehow still alive and bitey.

The cave merits exploration, though. It contains a significant quantity of sand, several broken clay pots, and one undamaged pot standing on a suspiciously sand-free copper plate with strange engravings. I toss a handful of sand onto the plate, and it is blown away. Orlando wants to leave, Edge is keen to smash the pot, and I ignore both of them and toss a coin onto the plate for no reason other than that the book gives me the option of doing so. The pot disappears, and two rings and a roll of parchment appear in its place.

The parchment has written on it a few lines of barely-scanning doggerel, warning me to take only one ring. One of the rings is made of gold, and inscribed with the image of a skull. The other is silver, and engraved with a cobweb pattern. The clue is in the title, as my schoolfriend and fellow gamebook nut Edward Webb used to say, so I take the ring with the more spider-related motif. And leaving the cave takes me to the same section as going directly south from the petrified Lava Beast would have done, so retracing my steps was the right thing to do.

Even further south, we encounter a hide tent with a peculiar quadruped (seemingly part-mule, part-anteater) grazing close by. The tent's occupant emerges, and turns out to be a man with lots of daggers, and snakes tattooed on his face. He asks if I come in peace, I reply that that depends what side he's on, and he professes to be neutral and reveals himself to be a trader. Well, it wouldn't be a late Livingstone book without an option to buy stuff somewhere, would it? I check out his wares, and opt to buy everything I can, spending most of my remaining money on a Crystal of Healing, a Trapping Box and an Invisibility Spell. He's also offering a Magic Carpet for the oddly specific price of one Firestone and a gold medallion, and I make the trade because the Carpet will enable me to avoid an encounter in which the fall of the dice determines whether or not I get my brain fried. The trader tells me the rather silly word of command needed to activate the carpet, and Orlando adds 'flying' to the list of things of which he's scared. I suppose I should be grateful that Edge doesn't start spoiling for a fight again.

We fly off, and after initially shrieking and cowering and generally being pathetic, Orlando catches sight of the assorted beasts over which we're flying, well out of harm's reach, and decides that he quite likes flying after all. Which is, naturally, a cue for the 'attacked by a flying beastie' sequence that inevitably crops up when air travel features in an Ian Livingstone gamebook. A Terrorwing (think an electrified red pterodactyl with mind powers) swoops towards us and tries to compel me to crash the carpet, and I need to remember the word of command in order to stay in control. The wrong option offered in the book is that bit dafter than the real word, and I have no trouble picking the right answer. We escape from the Terrorwing, and then the carpet runs out of whatever fuels it, and we have to land and resume our voyage on foot.

Orlando starts to suspect that we're no longer heading south, so I decide to ask for directions from a convenient stranger. The man sits cross-legged on a rock, with one hand resting on a wooden box. He wears only a loincloth, so the rainbow patterns that cover his body are clearly visible. Well, the text says they're like a rainbow, but the illustration suggests that Russ Nicholson got taught the wrong mnemonic for remembering the colour sequence. Go Buy Various Random Objects, Youngster, perhaps.

Orlando asks if we’re heading the right way for the Valley of Skulls, and the man replies that he’s only interested in colours, and too busy thinking about things that are blue to help us. Unless we solve his puzzle, which is a variant on one that previously appeared in Trial of Champions, with an additional element that assumes that weeks are the same length everywhere. Still, I answer correctly, and my companions and I are instantly transported elsewhere.

From our new location, I can see distant mountains with a valley running through them. Closer at hand is a ruined temple, which I'd probably have decided to explore even if the book hadn't insisted I do so. Inside are damaged statues, and I see steps leading down at the rear. More bits start falling off the statues, and Orlando gets scared and wants to leave. I catch sight of a crystal ball amidst the broken marble, but as collecting it brings a randomised chance of death, and I don't think I need it, I leave the ball where it is, and head straight for the steps.

They lead down to a bolted iron door. We can hear the sound of someone humming and playing a violin, and have a short and pointless debate about the merits of helping whoever is trapped behind the door, in the course of which Orlando implicitly insults many of the characters who've assisted me over the course of this series.

I open the door and, in a shocking non-twist, find a man playing a violin. After briefly mistaking me for a new guard, he explains that he used to play music for the Queen of Pain until he displeased her (possibly as a result of confusing Joy Division's Atmosphere with Russ Abbot's Atmosphere) and she had him locked up. He considers himself lucky not to have been killed. I mention that I'm looking for the Queen of Pain, and he says she's not far off, but all he wants to do is go home and mend his violin. By one of those staggering coincidences that occur with startling regularity in gamebooks, the violin string I have is just what he needs, and he gives me a tin whistle in return for it.

We proceed to the valley, and ascertain from the number of skulls scattered around the place that this is indeed the Valley of Skulls. A few of the Little People mentioned by Fat Jack leap out of a tree and point spears at us. While expressing his usual (for this book) zeal to shed blood, Edge manages to insult Orlando again, and the Tin Pig opines on the superiority of axes to swords. Advising the two of them to quit squabbling until we've taken care of the immediate threat, I address the Little People, who tell me they won't let me pass without a gift, so I throw them the Crystal of Healing I'd bought for just this situation. Its shininess so distracts them that we are able to get away without any further unpleasantness.

Further along the valley we see a wooden hut, and I decide to take a look inside. The place is full of litter, and smells bad enough that Orlando chooses to stay outside, his subsequent mutterings suggesting that he could have a promising future coming up with tacky slogans for deodorant ads. I search the hut properly, finding a brass lamp next to a copper dish, on which further doggerel encourages me to put some money in the dish in order to have a wish granted. The book gives me no choice but to do so, suggesting that Ian Livingstone wasn't paying close attention to the figures when writing this, as there's no certainty of having money left by this point in the adventure. I still have a couple of Gold Pieces because I didn't buy the book the boy was selling, and found a coin among the Lava Beast's belongings, but it's far from impossible to have spent everything by this stage.

Anyway, I drop my remaining money into the dish, and a bubble with a face grows from the lamp's spout. The face asks me what I wish for, and the book gives me a choice of either instantaneous transportation to the Dungeon of Despair or a Wand of Control. Remember what I was saying 15 paragraphs ago about needing to ask for a previously unmentioned item? That's the Wand. The other time I reached this stage of the adventure, I actually went back and checked every single path not taken on the route here, just to see if I'd missed a hint about the Wand and wasn't supposed to be asking for it in such a random-seeming manner. Nope, there is not a word of set-up for this request.

So, out of nowhere I ask for and receive a Wand of Control, and on the way out of the hut I spot a brass scorpion in the debris, which I leave where it is, because I remember that it turns out to be one of those animal-themed boobytrap items of which Ian became fond for a while.

We hurry on along the valley as dark clouds gather overhead, and a bolt of lightning strikes the ground just ahead of us. Then a figure appears from nowhere, causing the clouds to part and allowing the sun to shine down on us once more, This would be a more pleasing development if the figure in question were not a skeletal entity wearing dark robes and armed with an upright sickle (which illustrator Russ Nicholson has, for understandable reasons, chosen to depict as a scythe, though they seem to be different implements). The Grim Reaper announces that we must perform two tasks or perish (though 'answer two questions' would be a more accurate description of the challenge I now face).

Readers from outside the target age range of this book may be reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and all the more so when the first question turns out to be about a colour. More specifically, the one that was on the Rainbow Man's mind. This book came out a few years before Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? started up, so the Reaper's asking if I'm sure about my answer can't have been influenced by the show, but nowadays it does seem a little reminiscent.

The second question concerns the number of skulls in the valley, though I only actually have to count the ones in the picture, and I know that can't be all of them, because a larger number of skulls could be seen in the illustration of the Little People earlier in the book. In any case, I answer correctly, and the Reaper vanishes.

We proceed to the end of the valley, and with some effort shift the boulder, revealing a damp, slimy, torchlit tunnel. Edge starts verbally abusing Orlando again, but a Goblin attacks before this can develop into another infantile spat. The fight is pretty inconsequential, but at least it shuts my companions up for a bit.

Further along the tunnel, we see a side turning and hear a cry for help. We investigate, finding a gold miner who accidentally dug his way into the Dungeon and got stuck in a pit. We use the rope to help him out, and I explain our quest to him. He says we'll need to use magic to get the better of the Queen of Pain (advice rather too vague and too late to help with the Wand issue) and gives me a rabbit's foot made of gold for good luck. I could question its effectiveness, not only because of what happened to the miner carrying the 'lucky charm', but also because this is the point at which anyone who picked up that brass scorpion experiences the ill effects it brings.

Returning to the main tunnel, we advance further into the Dungeon and get to a particularly 'kids will accept any old rubbish' sequence. A mouse emerges from the shadows ahead of us and reveals itself to be the transformed Darkmoon. The mouse then turns into Darkmoon's ghost for no remotely sensible reason, so I get out the Trapping Box. The spectral wizard literally responds, "Curses! Foiled again!" before reverting to mouse form and exiting through a hole in the wall.

We continue down the tunnel until the floor gives way beneath us, causing us to fall into a massive spider's web. My sword arm gets stuck, so I'm unable to even try using Edge to cut myself free. A Giant Spider with a human face clambers onto the web and walks over to us, introducing herself as the Queen of Pain. She comments that I look as if I'd make a good meal, and on a whim I rub the ring I'm wearing, which causes the Queen to shrink to the size of a coconut. Somehow I get one hand free to use the Wand to keep her from running away, and compel her to answer my questions. She tells me an incantation that will summon Stonehammer (yet more doggerel), and says I'll need to use a magic whistle to soothe him. I then let her go free, assuming that her reduced size renders her incapable of doing any more harm. My character in these books is just rubbish at dealing with the major villains.

Eventually I manage to struggle free from the web, and we find a way out of the Dungeon and make camp for the night. In the morning we proceed to Sunstone Mountain, and Orlando prattles annoyingly until I recite the incantation. Part of the side of the mountain breaks away, and a huge stone human descends, accompanied by assorted rocks and rubble. Fortunately for us, the whistle I was given by the violinist turns out to be magical, enabling me to play a merry tune that cheers Stonehammer up. I explain the situation, and he agrees to help, so we set off towards the battlefield. I don't know how we're able to find it when we went off track on the way here and had to be magically transported to the vicinity of our destination, but we manage it.

The battle is still going badly for the Karazanian army, but Stonehammer's intervention turns the tide. The Orcs renew their assault in desperation, and Orlando and I are soon in the thick of the fighting. I trip over a fallen Skeleton, and an Orc Warlord tries to cleave me apart with an axe while I'm prone, but that lucky charm turns out to work after all, spoiling the Orc's aim. I manage to get up and fight back, finding the Orc to be as formidable an opponent as the Banshee that did for me in the first book - and this time round I don't even have the Skill bonus I got part of the way into Curse. The only thing in my favour is that the rules allow me to hit first, but the odds of my killing the Orc are not good. That roll I got against the Horned Shrieker would do the job here, but I do not manage to do as well this time. Several missed attacks follow, but eventually a weapon makes contact, to lethal effect... and it's not mine.

Well, that's two times I've played this book, and on both occasions I fell at the final hurdle. Owing to the narrowness of the viable path, if I try the book again, I shall have to do almost exactly the same things as I did on this playthrough (though I can skip one purchase). Not a prospect that appeals.

1 comment:

  1. Extra points for the Cure reference in your post title!